One of the things I’ve been working on with Dante is Leg Lifts. This isn’t about lifting a hoof to have it picked out or for farrier work (although you could use it for that) but lifting a foreleg higher then your horse normally does when he gives his natural walk.
When a foreleg lifts, the horse’s balance must change to accommodate that loss of balance by shifting the weight to the other remaining legs, usually backwards so the horse can re-center his mass.
- Improves the horse’s balance
- Can be done so the back becomes more lifted
- Opens the shoulders
- Gives more freedom to the front end of the horse to lift
- As the front lightens, it allows the hindlegs a place to move
- Used to improve upward transitions;
- Encourages the horse’s natural play drive and “proud” stance.
Before starting ask yourself what your eventual goal is. Do you want the leg to lift at the highest point of the knee, or for the toe to be pointed forward?
Also, remember that horses, just like people doing Yoga, will need time to get stronger and more flexible before gaining the highest leg lift or the most forward toe stretch. That’s why I prefer to teach this free of tack and let the horse decide how much to do in order to lessen the chance of injury.
Here are some different methods, all with Clicker Training that teach this exercise in a very short period of time:
1.) If your horse likes to paw, capture him doing it and click-treat. For example, Dancer and Dante both like to lift up their strongest foreleg when being served breakfast. I could have just clicked and treated when they lifted that leg.
This clicker training process is called “capturing.” This is how animal trainers for Hollywood work – they find what type of activity an animal likes to do and then capture it with clicks + rewards so eventually the behavior is repeated on cue. For example, this stretch bow behavior Dante likes to do naturally and it is one of his preferred activities in the morning when I’m preparing his food:
After capturing, put in a cue for the behavior to start getting the behavior on demand.
2.) Another way to capture, is stand by horse and wait for him to naturally lift a foreleg. Most horses will shuffle when they shift weight so, without putting pressure on him, just wait until he lifts a foreleg and capture that behavior with a click and treat. Your horse will go what???? and move about trying to figure out what he did to get that click-treat.
The key here is your horse needs to be familiar with clicker training (see my page “Need Help?” for links to how to start your horse with clicker training (positive reinforcement only +R). And make sure your click is on POINT at the EXACT moment of the leg lift. 😉
3.) My preferred way is to have the horse reach the leg up using a target. The reason is that “targeting” can be used in a lot of useful activities (i.e. trailering, lining up to a mounting block, entering a wash rack area, leading a horse etc…) and I generally like my horse to know it so I can use it as a springboard to these other behaviors.
In this video, I first reward for one leg touching the short target. Once that is established, I withhold clicks until she lifts her alternate leg (I missed the first time she did it!). The leg must actually touch the target for the click.
I use a soft target homemade of foam covered with a sock which is mounted on a small stick. Place your target stick close to a foreleg, but not touching. When the horse shifts, he will accidentally touch it – click and treat. It will take a few sessions for him to figure it out but generally, I find horses learn this quickly.
Once he knows a leg lift to touch the target, start eliminating the target and use a cue such as lifting your leg. Or trying moving the target in front of him so he has to move to touch it.
The drawback to using a target is the horse can get stuck and just want to stand when lifting his leg – and I will eventually want him to be doing this activity when he walks forward (the eventual goal which I will cover in a 2nd post).
In this video, the target has been removed and I’m lifting my own leg. When I want her to change legs, I change my own leg. For filming convenience, I’m standing in front, but eventually you want to move to her side – shoulder or ribcage – so you are not blocking her way and she has freedom to move forward.
BTW Dulce (the Palomino pony) is subordinate to Dancer so I was able to have her there without issue. She doesn’t get clicker training yet, but I did give her a little (free) treat when we ended our session.
4.) How I taught Dancer was we had a small step on a platform as you entered the tackroom (at a former barn). I brought her to it – and as she lifted her foreleg to step up, I captured the leg rising with a click treat. If you have a place where your horse has to step up to get there, this might be a good option.
The above methods don’t use a pressure system and are positive reinforcement +R only. This is really an easy exercise so resist the temptation to hurry it along by pushing or pulling the horse to make him lift a leg. Remember, the more he does the exercise under his own initiative the more excited he will be about doing it!
Things you can do with Leg Lifts:
1.) Use it to help the horse step up into a horse trailer, go over ground poles, move onto a mat, into a wash rack area, step onto a platform etc… this is a variation of “follow target.”
2.) The Jambette (or Spanish Greet): Horse lifts one leg very high with toe out, almost horizontal. While many videos on Youtube show how this is taught using negative reinforcement (tapping on the leg with a whip to get the leg to move), just continue the positive reinforcement exercise detailed above, shaping the height or stretch using your target.
Remember, all horses need time to get enough strength to do this exercise; you’ll see that Dante has one leg he favors over the other – and one that he lifts higher then the other. Yes, horses like humans, have natural asymmetry. The best thing though is if using Positive Reinforcement without tack, your horse can then determine how much he is capable of doing and the risk of injury is less.
Keep in mind that if pushed too quickly, the back will become dropped and this provides little beneficial strengthening or stretching.
2.) Jambettes can be performed on level ground or done on a platform. With the later, the Horse puts both forelegs on a platform and lifts one leg high (almost horizontal). When done this way you can start seeing that the horse naturally shifts weight backwards.
3.) Jambettes and pedestals can be used to encourage a deeper stretch to get better leg lifts. With the horse having one leg on the platform and one off, he brings his nose to touch a target between his legs that is lower such as between his knees, then his pasterns, or the height of the pedestal.
Jambettes can evolve into Spanish Walk. I don’t teach that exercise so won’t be going into it here. Personally, it doesn’t serve any purpose on how I ride, and I also think too many people are doing it with long backed horses with dropped backs instead of the powerful collection that a Baroque horse can naturally exhibit. Without a strong back, Jambette will just weaken the horse’s spine increasing the dropped back. This is when an exercise is indeed a “trick.”
My personal goal is towards something called Panther Walk coined by Intrinzen. So I’ll go into that further in a future post but for now go visit them on Instagram for some fantastic photos and Q&A.